After watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I have to confess to facing an internal struggle about how to approach any kind of review. There is no doubt that this is an outstanding action film within the context of a contemporary milieu of high-octane, CGI-driven, blockbuster extravaganzas. In fact, it may be one of the best such films to come out in many years – especially in its lack of contrivance towards any semblance of narrative sophistication. The barrage of positive reviews out there reflects this, and there is no point replicating them in great detail.
What they do generally agree on, beyond the fact that the film is a stand-out example in a market saturated by films that look like computer generated strobe-lighting, is that this can only be a good thing for the Australian film industry. Agreed. I’d also agree, to an extent, that the representation of women in the film can be interpreted as (slightly) progressive in the current zeitgeist. They are positioned as the last bastion of hope in a world devastated by male impulses. It’s a good thing.
But there is something under the surface of this film that has been gnawing at me, and I’ve been trying to get to exactly what it is for a while. Jon Eig recently touched on his own concerns in an insightful review in the Huffington Post. I certainly agreed with most of what Jon had to say, but there is something else that I’ve been trying to interrogate – something about Australianness.
Mad Max: Fury Road is to Mad Max as a hipster is to a hippy. Let me try and explain what I mean. The hippies made up a significant portion of the individuals who participated in the countercultural movement of the late 1960s. They were not perfect – their political views were overly simple, and even as the movement began, it was inextricably bound with the capitalistic system it opposed. They represent a great (but overly mythologised) moment, which has subsequently been homogenised into pop-culture (like all moments of counter-cultural rupture ultimately do). Hipsters, the commoditised great-grandchildren of hippies, allege to position themselves in contrast to the mainstream, both through aesthetic and attitude (though less through any real ideology). They are broadly left leaning, well-tailored, impeccably groomed aficionados of the finer things in life – like coffee, culinary experiences and modern art. They own hip restaurants, cafes and art galleries and other successful businesses. They represent an earlier point of rupture now rendered homogenous.
Mad Max was the hippy in this context. It’s grungy, low-down, dirty and cheap approach seemed to represent a punk-like rejection of mainstream culture. This was especially true in the context of an Australian film industry split between producing art films targeted towards repositioning the perception of Australia (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Devil’s Playground), and irreverent counter-cultural cinema that seemed to implicitly suggest that good taste represented the pretension of our British brethren (The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Alvin Purple). It wasn’t perfect – in fact it was a little embarrassing for some – but it was a big proud FU. With each subsequent Mad Max film in the original trilogy, George Miller seemed to take a step towards a larger and more expensive vision. Each was more complex, more professionally shot, and each seemed to render that punk element more digestible and less jagged. If Mad Max is the Sex Pistols, then Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is The Clash (oops, just introduced ANOTHER analogy).
So that makes Mad Max: Fury Road, the hipster. It is deeply informed by the counter-cultural ideals that came before it, but ultimately disassociated from their politics. It is dressed in a neat, clean, beautifully tailored aesthetic that is both reminiscent of its origins, but infinitely cleaner and more perfect than they are. It takes the adrenaline and action that informed its precursors, and executes in a way that is better than anything that has come before, while losing the moment of rupture that informed that adrenaline. Wait! I have one more analogy. Mad Max is Mick Jagger, heading up the Rolling Stones in his outrageous prime. Mad Max: Fury Road is Mick Jagger, standing tastefully in front of the queen, accepting the knighthood that would eternally subsume his outrageousness into tasteful culture.
Mad Max: Fury Road is outstanding. But after watching it, I went home and re-watched Mad Max.